Scripture - 1 Samuel 3:1-20
1 Samuel 3:1-20 (NRSV)
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” 15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
Responsive Psalm Reading - Psalm 139:1-6; 13-18 (UMH 854)
I have immense sympathy for Samuel in this passage - and I suspect that anyone who is a caregiver for a small child or, perhaps, an elderly parent, can relate a bit to the middle of the night wake-up calls. Just replace the words “Samuel, Samuel” with cries of “Mommy, Mommy!” and you have a pretty good picture of how my last night went...except Michael wasn’t nearly so accommodating in sending me back to bed, as Eli did in this passage from 1 Samuel. No, Michael’s cries in the middle of the night demand a response - and so I roll out of bed, generally sleepily, sometimes begrudgingly, to soothe Michael back to sleep after he’s had a bad dream, or after he’s woken up feeling uncomfortable, or just because he doesn’t have the skills to put himself back to sleep all the time.
Samuel, in our story, mistakes these midnight messages as being from Eli, and we see his readiness to respond to these calls, be they from his mentor or from God. To understand why that might be the case, we need to know a bit about how Samuel came to be serving the Lord, a bit about Eli and his family, and this moment in Israel’s history. You can find all of this in your Bibles in the first two chapters of 1 Samuel, but here’s the snapshot version.
Samuel was a boy who had been dedicated to the Lord’s service since before he had even been conceived. Hannah, his mother, was desperate for a child, and so on her yearly pilgrimage to worship God at Shiloh - the place where the ark of the covenant lay, which symbolized God’s presence with the people of Israel, she prayed for God to bless her with a son and in return, she promised to give the child back to God in service. Eli, the priest who attended the Lord with his two sons, saw her, thought was drunk because of the manner of her prayer, confronted her but softened when she explained that she had been pouring out her soul to God in prayer. Eli blessed her and assured her that God would grant her petition. Sure enough, she found herself with child and one he was weaned, presented him to Eli for service to God and left him there. Each year thereafter, she brought him a little robe for him to wear as he went about his duties.
Samuel came into God’s service as a three year-old boy in the midst of corruption. For while Eli had been attending to his spiritual duties, he had clearly neglected his parental ones. His two sons, both of whom were also priests at Shiloh, cared little for others or for the obligations of their position. They dealt unfairly with those who came to worship, disrespected the offerings, took advantage of the women who came to serve at the tent of meeting. Eli’s reprimands to his sons had no effect; in fact, the story tells us that God gave a prophetic message to Eli outlining the Lord’s plans regarding his family; both his sons would be killed on the same day and the whole family would be rendered penniless. If we read on in the story, we discover Israel at war with the Philistines, the ark of the covenant captured, and people serving foreign gods.
Samuel is born into this world of war, corruption, and turmoil. God’s voice had rarely been heard, visions and revelations from God were rare, and Samuel - despite having served God under Eli for most of his life - had not yet known the Lord, God had not yet been revealed to him. But Samuel had also been born being known by God, dedicated to God’s service….and it’s at this moment when he hears this voice calling his name in the middle of the night that we see Samuel step into the full mantle of that calling. Three times he thinks it’s Eli and it isn’t until that third time that Eli realized that it was God who was seeking out the boy Samuel.
When God’s voice calls out for a fourth time, Samuel presents himself as being ready to listen, and God entrusts to him this message of judgement against his mentor Eli, a weighty word for a boy to carry. In all this, we read that as the boy Samuel grew, the Lord was with him and that everyone knew that he was a trustworthy prophet of God. God’s presence surrounded Samuel - the Lord sought him out - and walked with him in the midst of a troubled world to be the bearer of God’s messages and a witness to God’s hope and desire for Israel’s faithfulness.
We certainly live in no less troubled times - with the complexity of our family relationships, the uncovering of systems of racism and prejudice, the dismantling of abuses of power with the #metoo movement, the threat of violence in our schools and the fragility of relations between nations, the harm being done to our environment with plastics and chemicals - and it is so easy to wonder where God is in the midst of it all. It can feel like, perhaps like Samuel, we, too, live in a time where the voice of God is rarely heard, where visions and revelations are rare, with this kind of apocalyptic uncovering of reality happening all around us.
Yet it is into these moments that God most desperately seeks us out, when God most fervently calls our names, when God reaches toward us to turn our attention back to our God - the one who seeks us and knows us, who - as Psalm 139 beautifully describes it - who forms us and shapes our inward being, the God whose presence surrounds us even before we are aware of it. This is the God who yearns for us to pay attention, to notice the movement of God’s spirit in the world - who calls our name in hopes that we might be ready to respond “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” This is the God who wants so desperately to be in relationship with us that Jesus came into the world so that we may be signs of God’s living presence in the world, messengers of God’s hope and healing, to be the people willing to sit in the dark and hurting places of our world to be salt and light and emblems of God’s love.
Samuel heard God calling in the middle of the night, literally hearing a voice speak his name - but God calls out to us in so many ways; in the news story you hear that breaks your heart, in that rare moment of peace in the morning before the day has started, in the midst of a difficult loss or pain, or in watching children at play...in moments that cause us to react, with joy or sorrow or anger -- moments that, if we stop and listen, if pay attention and seek to learn more and gain greater clarity, we discover God’s presence waiting with us...waiting to draw us to the place where we can put ourselves at God’s disposal so that God’s love can flow in us….and through us….and bring us all into a greater awareness of God’s kingdom at work among us.
Sometimes what we discover isn’t an easy truth - it wasn’t for Samuel, who was charged with reminding his mentor Eli with the reality of God’s prophetic word against his family. Sometimes, God asks us to face difficult realities, to love difficult people, to forgive unforgivable people, to speak up when we’d rather be silent, to kneel when we’d rather stand. But God’s promise is to be with us, God knows our strengths and weaknesses, and God equips us in the places where we can’t do it on our own.
God knows our hearts, knows our hopes and dreams, knows the places we feel we don’t measure up, knows our rough edges and our thoughts - and because of these things - not in spite of them - God calls out to us, waiting for our response, to be signs of God’s redeeming work in the world. This week, when you hear God calling out to you - what will your response be? I pray that for each of us, we - along with Samuel - might say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.